Ministers have been accused of not having a “common strategy” on forests because one ministry spends six times more on a wood-fired power plant than another on tree planting.
Annual grants for the Drax Power Station in North Yorkshire, a former coal-fired power station that now runs on ‘biomass’ made from imported wood waste, reached £ 832million in 2020, while the budget for tree planting and peat bogs amount to just £ 130 million per year.
Drax was recently named the UK’s biggest source of CO2 emissions. It releases more than 13 million tonnes of CO2 per year, using around 7 million tonnes of wood pellets, the equivalent of about 25 million trees, said scientists.
Meanwhile, Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith admitted this week that only 2,000 hectares of trees have been planted in England this year. The government has said it aims to plant 30,000 hectares of new forest across the UK each year by 2024, including 7,000-10,000 hectares in England by the end of this legislature.
Labor MPs claimed that the “massive subsidies” for burning imported wood at Drax, combined with the low level of tree planting, meant the government’s plan to tackle the climate crisis by planting trees “is in flames “.
Lord Goldsmith was asked by MEPs from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efra) on why the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) was providing such large grants to Drax, while the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) received less than this company alone for forest and peatland expansion.
He told the hearing: “Drax is a huge beast that needs to be fed.”
Although he said he needed to study further the environmental impact of the plant, he added that he would “challenge the model which requires the import of a large amount of wood”.
Pressed on this issue, he suggested that it was the BEIS business. But committee chair, Conservative MP Neil Parish, suggested Defra could comment on the plant’s environmental impact.
Labor MP Geraint Davies, who sits on the committee and has asked Lord Goldsmith for clarification on the logic of giving Drax larger grants than tree planting, said The independent that as the host of the recent COP26 climate summit, the UK “should be ashamed of its head”.
He said: “It is clear that there is no common government strategy on climate change, with budgets to plant more saplings overshadowed by massive subsidies to burn imported wood, which makes the Kingdom -On the other hand, wood is more of a problem than a solution to climate change. and encourage deforestation.
“The government’s plan to tackle climate change by planting trees is in flames as it gives more than £ 800million a year to Drax to be the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from from burning imported wood, compared to £ 650million over five years for tree planting and forestry. “
He added: “BEIS is in the hands of big companies, burning imported wood like there is no tomorrow. Meanwhile, Defra does not have the authority to counter the impact of wood burning on climate change by protecting and growing forests.
Luke Pollard, fictitious environmental secretary for Labor, said The independent: “Lord Goldsmith’s testimony made it clearer than ever how the Tories are totally failing in tree planting. Last year, ministers managed to meet less than half of their goal of 5,000 hectares of new trees in England. Now, he’s revealed that they won’t do much better this year or next.
“Not only are they spectacularly failing to plant trees, but their planned expenses for planting trees are eclipsed by grants to Drax to ship and burn wood from around the world with few controls to ensure it. does not come from the virgin forest. How can the public expect them to keep the promises they made at Cop26, let alone the faster action required to reduce carbon emissions? “
Asked by the Efra committee about England’s role in reaching the 30,000 hectares of trees that will need to be planted each year by 2050 to meet the UK’s legally binding net zero target, Lord Goldsmith said that Covid had interrupted planting in England.
“Last year we planted around 2,000 hectares, which is actually less than we expected,” he said. “Things have been seriously disrupted because of Covid. “
Lord Goldsmith said that although £ 650million was available for tree planting, the money was not going into a tree planting campaign, which would result in the planting of 7,000-10,000 hectares trees each year over the five years, but this would be used more sparingly at first, with an ultimate goal at the end of the five-year period for tree planting to reach that level, with more expense towards the end of this period.
Speaking of the low level of existing plantings, Lord Goldsmith said: “The reason I’m not concerned that we are starting at a much lower level than the 7,000 hectares is that we are trying new things. .
He said: “We are the second largest importer of timber in the world for a long time. And we’re one of the most landless countries on Earth, so we’re starting from a pretty low point. “
A BEIS spokesperson said The independent: “We are fully committed to eliminating our contribution to climate change by 2050, which is why we only support biomass that meets strict sustainability criteria. In 2020, sustainable biomass accounted for around 12.6% of the UK’s total electricity production.
“Our tree planting plans complement our tightly regulated biomass commitments as part of this government’s broader strategy to reduce carbon emissions, and we are proud to be committed to tripling planting rates in this area. ‘trees by the end of this parliament, allowing us to protect our peatlands and boost biodiversity as we rebuild greener after the pandemic. “
Despite concerns over the disconnection between the two government departments by the Labor Party, and although The independent made several requests for comment from Lord Goldsmith and Defra officials, neither Defra nor the Environment Minister offered a response, with a spokesperson saying the BEIS statement incorporated Defra’s contribution .
A spokesperson for Drax said The independent: “The world’s leading climatologists from the UN IPCC and the UK Climate Change Committee agree that sustainable biomass has an important role to play in decarbonizing energy systems globally – both by replacing the coal and in conjunction with carbon capture and storage to produce negative emissions.
“The conversion of the Drax power plant to use sustainable biomass instead of coal has transformed the business. Drax is the UK’s largest producer of renewable energy, generating 12% of the country’s renewable electricity – enough for four million homes. Drax plays a crucial role in supporting the energy system, allowing more renewable energy to come online, as well as supporting thousands of jobs throughout our supply chains in the north. The conversion also paved the way for us to deploy vital negative emissions bioenergy technology with carbon capture and storage – by 2030, we could permanently eliminate 8 million tonnes of CO2 each year.